The Science of Reading


What is the Science of Reading?

Reading is a complex cognitive task. How does our brain learn to read? How can schools use the knowledge gained from cognitive science to better inform literacy instruction to meet the needs of diverse students?

The Definition

The Science of Reading is a vast, interdisciplinary body of scientifically-based* research about reading and issues related to reading and writing.

This research has been conducted over the last five decades across the world, and it is derived from thousands of studies conducted in multiple languages. The science of reading has culminated in a preponderance of evidence to inform how proficient reading and writing develop; why some have difficulty; and how we can most effectively assess and teach and, therefore, improve student outcomes through prevention of and intervention for reading difficulties.

The Science of Reading is derived from researchers from multiple fields:

  • cognitive psychology,

  • communication sciences,

  • developmental psychology,

  • education,

  • implementation science,

  • linguistics,

  • neuroscience,

  • school psychology

What the Science of Reading is NOT

The Science of Reading is not:

  • an ideology or philosophy,

  • a fad, trend, new idea, or pendulum swing,

  • a political agenda,

  • a one-size-fits-all approach,

  • a program of instruction

  • a single, specific component of instruction such as phonics


Defining Movement. (2021, March 8). The science of reading: A defining guide.

The Simple View of Reading

The Simple View of Reading

The Simple View formula and supporting studies show that a student’s reading comprehension (RC) score can be predicted if decoding (D) skills and language comprehension (LC) abilities are known. Notice that D and LC are not added together to predict RC. They are multiplied. In the Simple View formula, the values of D and LC must be between 0 and 1 (or 0% and 100%). A score of 0 means no skill or ability at all and 1 indicates perfection. (Source: Reading Rockets).

Scarborough's Reading Rope

Understanding Scarborough's Reading Rope

Watch the Webinar: Nancy Hennessy-Multifaceted Nature of Reading Acquisition

  • The Reading Rope consists of the lower and upper strands that woven together help a child comprehend the text they are reading.

  • The Lower Strand is Decoding- the word-recognition strands (phonological awareness, decoding, and sight recognition of familiar words) work together as the reader becomes accurate, fluent, and increasingly automatic with repetition and practice. This is when students "lift" words off the page without effort.

  • The Upper Strand is Language-comprehension- strands (background knowledge, vocabulary, language structures, verbal reasoning, and literacy knowledge) reinforce the word recognition strand, The strands weave together with the word-recognition strands to produce a skilled reader.

  • This does not happen overnight; it requires instruction and practice over time.

(Image Used With Permission)


Structured Literacy

Structured Literacy explicitly teaches systematic word identification/decoding strategies. Structured literacy is diagnostic based on formal and informal assessments. Content is taught to mastery so children can recognize words with automaticity to free up working memory to allow the student to focus on the meaning of text. This is not memorizing sight words visually.

Structured literacy "is an approach to reading instruction that can be beneficial not only for students with reading disabilities, but also for other at-risk students including English learners and struggling adolescents" (Baker et al., 2014; Gersten et al., 2008; Kamil et al., 2008; Vaughn et al., 2006).

View the Rhode Island Department of Education's Structured Literacy Page

(Source: International Dyslexia Association)

Orthographic Mapping

The Four-Part Processing Model

The underlying processes involved in decoding novel or unfamiliar words.

The Simple View of Reading and Dyslexia

What is Dyslexia?

Speaking is natural, reading is not. Yet, many practices teachers were taught to use for early literacy reinforce the belief that exposure to text and high interest books will suffice to help students become proficient readers. Misconceptions about early literacy can have devastating effects on dyslexic students despite the best intentions.

Dyslexia falls on the lower end of the literacy continuum. These students struggle with word-level reading, which can impact comprehension and make reading feel exhausting. Many dyslexic students will not be officially identified, which becomes an equity issue (wealthier families can afford testing and private interventions). Therefore, it is extremely important that Tier 1 instruction aligns with the evidence about how a child's brain learns to read.

Students with dyslexia often struggle with phonemic awareness, phonological processing, and/or rapid automatized naming. These deficits make learning to decode words challenging. Early screening can help identify students at risk of developing reading challenges and can allow teachers to provide appropriate support and interventions.

If Tier 1 general education instruction included a structured literacy component, that is diagnostic and prescriptive (also called responsive), most students can go on to recognize words with automaticity allowing them to be fluent readers. Dyslexic students will need more practice and repetition for orthographic mapping to occur to achieve fluency, but if they are provided a strong foundation in the Tier 1 setting, interventions will be more effective. Kilpatrick on RTI Research

The Importance of Structured Literacy

"Numerous studies have indicated that students who receive early systematic phonics instruction have better reading comprehension at the end of the second and third grades (Foorman, Francis, Fletcher, Schatschneider, & Mehta, 1998; NICHD, 2000).

This is because they can accurately read the words, and being able to read the words provides the oral language system with the input needed for comprehension.

Poor word reading means that the oral language system often receives inadequate input for comprehension."

- David A. Kilpatrick in Essentials of Assessing, Preventing, and Overcoming Reading Difficulties states

Language Comprehension

Language Comprehension

The Simple View of Reading also recognizes the importance of language comprehension. It is important to provide students with a content-rich curriculum that exposes them to vocabulary and syntax to help students comprehend what they are reading. When a student is able to decode fluently, they can then map those words to their oral language vocabulary to derive meaning. In the early grades, it is important to expose students to a rich language environment that helps students learn about the world around them and to expose them to new vocabulary, syntax and the pragmatics of language. This is why read alouds are very important.

Students who struggle with oral language comprehension can include emergent bi-lingual students, students with developmental language disorders, and students on the autism spectrum to name a few. Students with dyslexia can also struggle with vocabulary and background knowledge if their decoding challenges are not remediated in early elementary grades, these challenges can often be found in dyslexic students in later grades.

The importance of oral language comprehension and why some students struggle.

Knowledge Matters

The Challenges

Early literacy practices taught to teachers gave the impression that learning to read is similar to learning to speak.

Many teacher preparation programs focused on exposure to text and guided reading questions and reading comprehension skills as the primary method of teaching reading.

Balanced literacy implementation varies from school to school. Teachers may teach phonics instruction, but then go to use three-cueing or MSV strategies that focus on meaning first, syntax, and visual cues. This can interfere with orthographic mapping (the way the children sound out words and map to their oral language vocabulary leading to the word being stored in long-term memory).

Many K-3 teachers include phonics, but challenges include a poor sequence, no explicit teaching of phonemic awareness, inadequate explicit instruction, weak progress monitoring, lack of decodable books for young readers to practice.

Teachers were taught to assess and remedy reading challenges through the three-cueing model or MSV strategy in running records (examples include: when a child misreads a word did they use pictures to determine meaning? Was the child paying attention to syntax? Did the child pay attention to visual cues like print?). These methods are time consuming and reinforce what struggling readers do, use compensatory strategies to decode words and derive meaning from words they cannot sound out.

Many elementary schools do not build enough content knowledge. Poor test scores led to the belief that more skills-based instruction would improve reading scores. This is why PD in scientifically-based reading instruction is necessary.

Struggling readers in middle school and high school are misunderstood. Their challenges may be blamed on poverty, family, or lack of engagement (reluctant readers). Implicit biases related to race is a challenge.

Many popular early literacy curriculum market themselves as responsive; however, they do not align with scientifically based reading instruction, leading many students to require intervention.

Most teachers were never taught about dyslexia in the context of their literacy program. Some well-known literacy professionals even deny dyslexia exists and are asked to speak at literacy conferences. Prominent Literacy Expert Denies Dyslexia

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